From the Spring 2002 issue
by AL BENNER
Last year, I served as a reviewer for a state music board where we were to award rather large cash gifts to several artists. It was a very interesting experience for me. We were to pick a predetermined number of artists most qualified in the board's opinion to receive these gifts. The review panel consisted of both performers and composers. This led to some at times quite lively debate concerning the merits of the individual applications for awards. I came away from the experience a little wiser in understanding how review panels work and, also, how I can improve my chances when I submit my works for consideration for not only this type of music board, but also any competition, grant, or call for scores.
I learned that no matter how often people say they are working independently of their music biases, biases still exist. Some reviewers I believed kept open minds and others I thought were trying to push their particular agendas. This ranged from people who didn't like a particular type of music, and thus graded a particular application low, to reviewers who were performers ranking performers over composers and vice versa. Some were more obvious than others and I hope that I, being a composer, did not give a similar impression. But life experiences play a powerful part in our individual opinions, so I can't honestly say I was without my own biases. However, I really tried to be neutral in my reviews.
A review panel takes on a life of its own. There were, on this one, friends of mine, people whose names I recognized, and people whom I did not know. I "bonded" with some of these unknowns and with others I did not. Obviously you tend find ways to agree with people you like and to disagree with those you find a bit annoying. Reviewers seemed to range from very strong personalities (who seemed to be expressing opinions all the time) to those who rarely spoke. Thus, unless someone spoke against the stronger voices, they tended to dominate the conversations. And if they had a bias, that bias tended to dominate. In this panel, I thought we fortunately had a good mix of personalities and thus had people to keep things balanced. But the bottom line here is that there is a good chance that the outcome might have been different with a completely different panel.
The way your application package looks has a lot to do with the perception of its merits. This I cannot stress enough. The administrator for the music board narrowed the number of applications received to those we were reviewing that day. I don't remember the exact number of applications, I think about two dozen, but there were a high percentage of those that were poorly prepared. Hand-written applications (unless your hand-writing is spectacular) are very difficult to read. It is always better to either use the computer or a typewriter. It is also very obvious how much thought goes into the application. You would be surprised at the numerous misspellings and ungrammatical sentences. Applications with these flaws, whether meritorious or not, tended to be the first ones dismissed.
I was also surprised by the very few scores that were nicely engraved. Many were hand-written scores or very poorly engraved (notes didn't line up, articulations floating on the page--does it go with this note or that note?--etc.). Now that engraving software has improved, it is not that difficult to prepare a well-engraved score. Of course, it does take some time and attention to details. If it is not important enough for the applicant to take the time and attention to prepare his/her score, why should the reviewer spend his/her time with it? Anything that is difficult to read or understand is easily dismissed. Hand-written scores or poorly engraved scores are not automatic disqualifiers, but it certainly puts you at a disadvantage.
Since we had an average of about 15 minutes for each application, those who submitted samples on CDs made reviewing--and especially rehearing samples--much more convenient and efficient. As the day wears on, time efficiency plays an important factor in proper evaluation of materials. This was a real eye-opener for me. I might be one of the few people left who have yet to make any CDs of my music. I still submit cassette tapes with my scores. When you are reviewing several works of a composer, trying to rewind and locate the exact starting point for a rehearing becomes a matter of hit or miss--not to say anything about the time lost while the tape rewinds. And no matter how good your cassette tape is, unless the reviewer's machine has the exact Dolby or electronics of your machine, there is always a slight "hissing" sound. CDs, if properly pressed, produce a clean sound.
One other thing was clear with recordings--and this is one that I don't think an applicant can control. Because of the applicant's positions in the musical community and/or their economic situations, some recordings were professionally done, others came from a live amateur concert taping or rehearsal. Some used well-known professional groups and others used the local amateur talent. If you have a commercial recording of your work by a professional artist, it is naturally going to sound a lot better than if you use amateurs. You could write a great piece, but if it is not played properly or recorded properly, it won't represent you as well as it could. Now, this was not really a significant problem with the review panel--but some of those commercial CDs made me want to go out and purchase a copy.
At the end of the day, some obvious award winners emerged. Although they did submit proper applications and CDs, I would like to think that even if they had not, their outstanding musical qualities made them stand out from the rest. But, after the obvious choices were made, we still had a few awards left to give. This is where all of the above really matters. In trying to determine from many qualified applicants who were to receive the remaining few awards, there had to be a logical way to narrow the field. At the end of the day, I felt good about our decisions--but more important to me, I learned a valuable lesson. I learned that as technology changes, all of us must find ways to keep up with those changes if we want our own applications to receive serious consideration.
Of course, like Dennis Miller says, "This is just my opinion. I could be wrong."